BY PAUL ASPAN
Later tonight, The University of South Florida’s Campus will be alive in a way it has never been before. The mere ten-year-old football program is on the verge of hosting the biggest game in school history. Green and gold clad fans will begin to fill a sold out Raymond James Stadium beyond its 65,000 person capacity as they entertain thoughts of an upset for their 18th-ranked Bulls over the No. 5 team in the country, West Virginia. It will be pandemonium to say the least.
The Mountaineers look to come in and spoil the raucous Tampa environment the same way USF did when it went to Morgantown last November 25th. West Virginia found itself on the short end of 24-19 Bulls’ win – an end to any BCS Bowl hopes for the Mountaineers, and an announcement to the college football world that South Florida had arrived for good.
Almost a year later, the Mountaineers (4-0) are once again in the top ten, and the Bulls (3-0) have shown that they belong in the top 25. Friday night’s nationally televised matchup will open the Big East portion of the schedule for both teams. It will also be the first real test for a West Virginia team with National Title aspirations.
Coach Rich Rodriguez and his team won’t use a certain R – word when they talk about this week’s game, but it’s clear that last year’s loss is fresh in their mind.
“They obviously remember what happened last year, and they say revenge doesn’t play a factor, but there is definitely some extra motivation to go down there and take one from them in their home stadium,” says Sam Lordi, who covers the Mountaineers for WDTV, the CBS affiliate in Bridgeport, WV.
“They’re also excited because it’s their first Big East game of the season and since the summer they’ve said their biggest goal is to regain the Big East title.”
The key for the Bulls in last year’s win was that they completely shut down West Virginia’s dynamic duo of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton. The two combined for only 60 yards rushing and White turned the ball over three times.
This year’s match-up will again hinge on West Virginia’s explosive run offense (357/ypg) against South Florida’s stingy run defense (79/ypg). However, based on the Mountaineers’ dominant performance against ECU a week ago, stopping Slaton and White might not be enough.
“Twelve different players got involved offensively last week between passing, rushing and receiving”, says Lordi. “The fact that they have more threats offensively and they’re spreading the ball out like that should help Slaton because it doesn’t look like they’ll just be running the offense around White and him.”
“Last week they faced an Eastern Carolina team that had held them under 200 yards in two consecutive meetings and they rushed for almost 400 yards on them.”
The Mountaineer defense will face a test of its own against South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe. The sophomore signal caller threw for 279 yards against West Virginia last year, and he hasn’t thrown an interception since that game. If the game does turn into a shootout, Grothe’s arm will be the Bulls best chance to stay in it as the Mountaineers give up 186/ypg in the air.
However, if West Virginia strikes quickly and takes the crowd out of the game, their Green and Gold day will be pretty gray for the South Florida faithful.